30-year-old Chinese Grandmaster Wang Hao is the shock winner of the 2019 FIDE Chess.com Grand Swiss after he beat David Howell in the final round to take the trophy on tiebreaks ahead of Fabiano Caruana. The bigger prize was a place in the 2020 Candidates Tournament, which in the end he would have claimed even with a draw. Magnus Carlsen had to settle for joint 3rd after an exciting draw with Levon Aronian that saw him surpass Ding Liren’s 100-game unbeaten streak. That papered over some cracks: “The streak is nice, the performance was mediocre at best!”
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The victory of 15th seed Wang Hao was impossible to predict before the event, with the Chinese star himself describing it as “totally unexpected”. He revealed that after getting knocked out of the World Cup by Leinier Dominguez in Round 3 he almost didn’t play:
Before this tournament I was even thinking to withdraw because I was really tired from the World Cup. I played a very tough match against Dominguez and finally lost in blitz games.
There was no sign of fatigue as Wang Hao began with three sparkling wins before holding Fabiano Caruana to a draw. He would go on to have a remarkable event, posting a 2900 rating performance:
Despite playing Carlsen, Caruana, Anand, Aronian, Vitiugov and an at that point in-form Luke McShane he might have done even better. He could easily have scored a full point more from the rook endgames against Levon and Nikita, and although he was in danger at times against Parham Maghsoodloo he had the best chance to win that game near the end.
He went into his final game against David Howell with the best tiebreak, after playing the strongest opposition out of all the 154 players, and therefore knew a draw with the white pieces might be enough for him to reach the Candidates. He had the luxury of taking things easy:
Today I thought that I should try to play solid, not to lose - that was important.
Even when the opening didn’t quite go to plan he stayed calm, until eventually David self-destructed. 18…Bd5?! (18...Be6!) was a bold roll of the dice…
…but although after 19.Rd1
Bxb7 20.Rxd8 Rxd8 Black may have had enough resources to draw with perfect
play it was borderline crazy as a winning attempt. Wang Hao summed up:
It’s not good to be too ambitious in the last round because of course he was Black and he never beat me in any kind of tournament… There was no reason to play like this. There was no reason to put himself in danger without any threats for Black.
The reason was perhaps that it’s hard to give up on a dream, even if pursuing it cost the English grandmaster around $20,000 in lost prize money:
The final mistake was 24…Rd1+?, but when you’re down to under a minute on your clock realising you have to play a move as ugly as 24…Bc8! isn’t easy. After 25.Kf2 there was no safe square for the black bishop, so David went for 25…Bh1, producing one of the most bizarre bishop pair setups you’re likely to see!
Simply 26.Ke2 Rd5 (or any other square) 27.Qb1 would win one of the bishops, but Wang Hao decided to go for the jugular instead with 26.Qe8+ Kg7 27.Bc5. The remaining moves were more about David coming to terms with the defeat than chess.
For Wang Hao it meant that he’d finished above Fabiano Caruana on tiebreaks to take the trophy, and this was one case when, although it would have been nice to see a playoff, you couldn’t really argue with the tiebreaks. Wang Hao had played stronger opposition and performed better both numerically (2900 to Fabi’s none too shabby 2888) and in more subjective terms. Fabi thought his tournament was “very good” overall, but admitted a lot of the games were “kind of up and down”, and that he’d been a move away from defeat against Luke McShane.
In any case, the money was shared equally for all ties on the Isle of Man, so Wang Hao and Caruana both took home $60,000 (half of the $70,000 for 1st and $50,000 for 2nd).
Wang Hao’s victory was another case of an almost forgotten chess player suddenly re-emerging to claim a place in the most important event in chess. Teimour Radjabov, a prodigy whose peak rating dates from November 2012, was almost no-one’s pick to qualify for the Candidates Tournament via the World Cup, but he did it. Now Wang Hao has done the same. The Chinese grandmaster is just 30, but in rating terms he peaked in January 2013 when he was 23 years old, rated 2752, world no. 14 and comfortably the Chinese no. 1. He was a supertournament regular, won Biel Chess 2012 ahead of Carlsen, Giri and Nakamura, and in the first Norway Chess in 2013 finished on 50% after defeating Carlsen (with Black) and Anand in the final two rounds.
After that, however, he almost disappeared, in the way still young Chinese players have (or at least had) a habit of doing. That’s often since they became coaches at a young age, with Wang Hao revealing he currently has 7-8 students and that his work on chess is mainly to help them. He dropped out of the elite circuit and as recently as January 2017 was rated 2670, world no. 75 and Chinese no. 8. He’s been on a comeback ever since, however, and after becoming an open tournament specialist he perhaps had the perfect skillset for the mix of an open and an elite event we had on the Isle of Man.
Wang Hao’s performance has seen him regain that 2752 rating on the live rating list, which is currently sufficient to make him world no. 17 (though effectively 16 since Kramnik is retired). It also, of course, catapulted him into the Candidates Tournament. We now know 4 of the 8 players for that qualifier to face Magnus Carlsen:
Anish Giri almost has the rating spot tied up, while there are still two players to be decided by the Grand Prix series and one wild card. How is Wang Hao planning to prepare for that event?
I think now my problem is that I don’t have a team and probably I will try and find some friends and create a team to be better.
It’s going to be interesting see how prepared and motivated Radjabov and Wang Hao will be to qualify for a match against the World Champion. If either of them did it, and even won the match, it would have been quite a journey!
A Swiss tournament usually has one very happy winner as well as a lot of pretty happy people who finished near the top, but this year’s event on the Isle of Man would end in disappointment for all but one of the players fighting for a spot in the Candidates Tourament. We saw the dejection of David Howell, who got a chance he could barely have believed before the event, but it must have been tougher for elite players who consider the Candidates almost a birth right. The likes of Vishy Anand, Sergey Karjakin, Wesley So, Hikaru Nakamura and Levon Aronian now have no path to the 2020 Candidates, and will have to wait until at least 2022 for a next shot at the World Championship title.
Some tried to take things philosophically…
…but it was very clear from Levon Aronian’s interview after a draw with Magnus how much it mattered to him. All his usual ebullience was absent when he commented:
I was in a must-win situation, so it didn’t really work.
It was as tough as it gets for Nakamura and Aronian to come into the last round needing to beat the world nos 1 and 2, and the presence of players already qualified may be something to reconsider for future events. Any sense of unfairness was dampened, however, since Wang Hao played both the “big bosses” on his way to victory.
While Nakamura-Caruana never really caught fire before a 31-move draw, you couldn’t fault Levon for not trying to seize his chance. He followed Vladimir Fedoseev earlier in the event in playing an aggressive 4.f3! against the Nimzo-Indian line that Sopiko Guramishvili recommends in her chess24 video series. Magnus improved with 11…Nfd7 on Radek Wojtaszek’s 11…a5, and after 12…f5 and 15…Qh4!? there was fire on board:
Both players were out of their prep and here admitted they completely missed the computer’s suggested 16.Bd3!, when White can “castle manually” with Re1 and Kg1. Of course Rxe5 would run into Bxh7+, winning the rook. Even Sesse gives less than a one-pawn advantage to White, however, so it’s not clear if that would have changed the outcome of the game. As it was the decisive moment came just a few moves later, when after 16.Qd2 16.Nf6 17.Rc1 Ba6 18.b3 Magnus grabbed the d-pawn with 18…Nxd5!
Levon confessed he’d thought this was “never possible”, but it is since 19.f4? runs into 19…Nf6!, threatening 20…Ne4+, which the Armenian no. 1 said “just kills the game”. Instead he played the beautiful-looking 19.Rc4, but he called it, “a move only to try to make a draw”. In the play that followed Magnus gave back his extra pawn to essentially force a draw after what had been a sparkling, well-played game.
That was one of a few small consolations for Levon:
This year I’ve been playing terribly, so at least scoring a decent amount of points is already a relief, but obviously I came very close.
He felt his game against David Antón was the one that got away.
Magnus, who knew he couldn’t win the event unless Caruana lost to Nakamura, had decided just to enjoy himself, and it didn’t hurt that he also surpassed Ding Liren’s 100-game winning streak. He was asked afterwards what he thought about the claims of 110-game unbeaten streaks by Sergei Tiviakov and Bogdan Lalic:
For sure, I’m not going to make any judgments on whether their streaks qualify, because I’m not qualified and also heavily biased, of course! I feel like 100 is kind of a magic number – never thought I’d get there! I’ve had some luck, for sure, also in this tournament, but now that I haven’t been playing so well recently at least that’s a big reason to be happy.
Tiviakov wasn’t backing down!
Carlsen’s streak came against players on average rated above 2750, but if he wants to end all talk of the other streaks there’s only one thing for it – don’t lose a classical game in the Grand Chess Tour finals in London in December and then go unbeaten at the start of the Tata Steel Masters next January!
Magnus, who had been in huge danger against Yuriy Kuzubov and lost against Vladislav Kovalev, summed up how he’d achieved his +4 score on the Isle of Man: “The streak is nice, the performance was mediocre at best.”
A crushing victory over Alexander Grischuk was one of the highlights of 24-year-old Spaniard David Antón’s career, and he went into the penultimate round against Fabiano Caruana with a real chance of qualifying for the Candidates. That would have been a stunning development, but almost as impressive was how David shrugged off defeat to Fabi to come back in the final round. A complex endgame win over Robert Hovhannisyan saw David finish in the tie for 3rd, earning $27,667 – and in fact, just as in Gibraltar this year, he finished 5th, putting him one place above a certain Magnus Carlsen!
There was every reason to celebrate!
David is pushing towards 2700, but Kirill Alekseenko’s World Cup and now Isle of Man exploits have seen him not just enter the 2700 club but completely overshoot the mark to reach 2714.8 after gaining over 40 points.
Across those events he’s unbeaten in 19 classical games, and as well as keeping the likes of Grischuk, Carlsen, So and Anand at bay he ended the Candidates Tournament hopes of Sergey Karjakin. In the final round he faced another Russian who’s been having a great couple of months, Nikita Vitiugov, and came close to squeezing out a victory that would have seen him take second place in the tournament. The win for Wang Hao ended the chance of an automatic Candidates spot, but the draw was enough for a 3rd place finish that leaves Kirill eligible for a wild card.
Since the organisers of the event in Yekaterinburg are Russian there’s a real chance they might consider the 22-year-old St. Petersburg player. His older colleague from the same city tweeted:
Other young players who impressed included 19-year-old World Junior Champion Parham Maghsoodloo and 25-year-old Vladislav Kovalev, who were in contention for the Candidates Tournament before the penultimate round, though Kovalev may most remember his missed win against Magnus. 21-year-old Russian David Paravyan also sneaked up to 10th place, and a $9,600 prize.
Anish Giri sadly chose to skip the Grand Swiss, but his Dutch colleague Jorden van Foreest made up for it with a perfect 11 draws:
The Grand Chess Tour recently came in for criticism for having just one rest day during the 11-round classical tournaments in Zagreb and St. Louis, but the Grand Swiss did the same. Normally the argument would be that an open tournament is less intense with easier games at the start, but as we’ve seen, there were almost no walkovers in this year’s tournament. And then there was the time control… While the Grand Chess Tour switched to a time control that meant almost all games would be over in 4-5 hours, on the Isle of Man the time control was the longest one remaining in chess, meaning some games each day would last 7-8 hours, beyond the endurance of most commentators or chess fans, not to mention the players.
If things went badly in the Grand Swiss they could go very badly, with Shankland (-26.4 rating points), Gawain Jones (-25.3) and Maxim Rodshtein (-30.6) among the players to suffer. That’s perhaps one reason why so many eligible players declined their expenses-paid invitation to the event – it’s not a tournament to take lightly!
One thing that made the Grand Swiss so tough this year was that the players towards the bottom of the table, or in the second playing hall, were not “chess tourists” who had paid for the privilege of playing alongside the world’s best but mainly ambitious, underrated juniors or women fighting for the $10,000 women’s prize (more than the $9,600 earned by Grischuk, Paravyan, Howell, Vidit and Le Quang Liem for finishing in 9th-13th overall).
Scrolling down the final standings the first sub-2600 player you find is 2520-rated Gukesh, who finished in 48th place on 6/11. The first sub-2500 player is 2479-rated Sadhwani, who scored his final GM norm at this year’s Isle of Man. Those 13-year-olds are likely to join the mass Indian assault on the top ranks of chess in a few years' time, but for now there’s time for some fun!
Denmark’s GM Jonas Buhl Berre and Germany’s Vincent Keymer, who also completed their grandmaster norms, will fly the flag for Europe.
Another player to score a GM norm, in this case her first, was Dinara Saduakassova from Kazakhstan, who beat Egyptian GM Ahmed Adly in the final round for a 2648 rating performance. That was enough for a tie for women's 1st place and $9,000, but Harika Dronavalli took the trophy on the back of a slightly better tiebreak. Both players also entered the 2500 club that marks the elite level of the women’s game:
Let’s end with the traditional nod to upcoming events. This 2019 Chess Calendar started off relatively sparse, then became completely packed when the Grand Chess Tour and Grand Prix got going and now enters “insane” territory for the rest of the year. The European Team Championship starts on Thursday in Batumi, Georgia, with Giri, Mamedyarov and Aronian among the players in action. That overlaps with the Fischer Random World Championship final stages starting on Sunday in Norway, where Carlsen joins qualifiers Nepomniachtchi, So and Caruana.
A few days later three events that would normally command our full attention overlap – the Hamburg FIDE Grand Prix, the Superbet Rapid and Blitz Grand Chess Tour event in Bucharest and the European Club Cup in Montenegro. Of course you can stay tuned for all the action here on chess24!
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